Bigger Isn’t Always Better: The Open World Obsession

When looking forward towards the host of upcoming titles in big game franchises, there is a trend that is becoming ever more apparent. Big game series such as Assasin’s Creed, The Witcher and Metal Gear Solid are among those who are embracing the open world format. The question is though, is this: is bigger really better? By expanding the world beyond a more linear structure do you really enhance the experience, or is it a case of less sometimes is more?

The benefits of opening your world can be great indeed, as a well crafted world that allows for experimentation and extra content is enticing. It can also expand the immersion and allow the player to indulge more heavily in the game’s fiction. It can, however, have the opposite effect, causing frustrating long travels between missions, artificially extending a game’s length with padding and filler content, as well as possibly detracting and devaluing what might otherwise have been a convincing game world.

Grand Theft Auto needs little introduction as the game that put open world on the map.

Grand Theft Auto needs little introduction as the game that put open world on the map.

Rockstar is the game company easily the most synonymous with open world gaming, and within their back catalog lie two recent examples of what I believe to be the best and worst of the open world genre: Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. Red Dead Redemption’s open world is for me one of the most well realized ones. While  the missions became repetitive and occasionally infuriating to control, I found the wild west setting entirely engrossing. The landscape begged for exploration and felt rewarding in terms of both the content available to indulge in and the sheer sense of discovery and adventure.

L.A. Noire I find less impressive in its world’s realization. While the effort and the details of it’s 1940’s Los Angeles is impressive in terms of the achievement and accuracy, it doesn’t feel nearly as worthwhile to explore. The poor driving controls are well documented, and it does its fair share to break any feeling of reality and immersion. The world feels barren and lifeless, and even though there are side missions available, there’s nothing that I feel justifies any real exploration. It’s true that the driving sections are largely skipable, but it seems a huge shame that such a large and detailed world is reduced to an annoyance and distraction. While I for the most part enjoyed L.A. Noire’s main narrative, the open world felt like it was there because it was expected, not because it was needed.

Driving in L.A. Noire is at its best an accidental comedy.

Driving in L.A. Noire is at its best an accidental comedy.

This is, I feel, the reason for many games having embraced the open world formula. There’s an expectation for AAA games to be ever-bigger, with more and more content to justify the increasing game prices. Open worlds are an obvious way to extend your game, making it seem bigger while packing in  as much filler as possible. Assassin’s Creed, for example, was already semi open world, so making the whole thing a more connected environment seems like a good idea and a natural fit. On the other hand, it is a series that seems to be stagnating since it impressed so much with Assassin’s Creed 2, going open world gives an illusion of progression while there is still fear that the main gameplay remains largely unchanged. There’s a danger by going bigger and bigger that instead of having interesting and detailed locations to explore, you end up instead having a more vast, but empty world.

The game I would like to use to illustrate this point is Shenmue, probably my favorite game that has an open world approach. I wouldn’t say that Shenmue is a case of less being more, but rather the scope of Shenmue’s setting is smaller but inherently more detailed where it matters. This balance creates what I believe to still be the most authentic and the most alive world in any videogame. The attention to detail is astounding, and every building stands with purpose, not just filling the space. Every unimportant NPC has a real day-to-day life that they live, individually programmed with their own routine and looks, not just spawning AI clones that serve to just fill the space. None of these are details that are necessary as such, but they are the extra mile that makes the open world seem like a living, breathing thing.

Shenmue's world is very special place to me, an experience never replicated since.

Shenmue’s world is very special place to me, an experience never replicated since.

Part of this success is down to the fact that Shenmue was designed with a purpose and a grander scheme. It was designed with the open world specifically in mind, not because it was deemed a necessary or expected feature. It’s not implemented as a way to falsely elongate the game or to try and inject a sense of progress into a stagnating franchise. The game was built for the open world and the open world was built lovingly for the game.

That, in essence, is what my concern is with the ever growing amount of open world games. I fear it promises progress, but may only serve to intrude on games that might be better off with a tight narrative and more focused gameplay. I love a good open world game, and those that are built with care to make their world feel alive end up creating amazing experiences for us to lose ourselves in. Other games, however, end up adding to what seems like a never ending amount of padding and false lengthening in order to justify the game’s cost. Bigger isn’t always better, and perhaps if the time was better spent making a game that plays great from start to finish, then enough people would buy the game anyway. You would hope that the game buying public would value quality over quantity.

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